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When you arrive in Darwin there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in the Smith Street Mall in the city centre. You won’t find it on any tourist’s must-see list, but it’s a major thoroughfare that offers respite from the beating sun in the Dry season, and the unexpected downpours in the Wet.

About 350 metres long, the mall only takes a couple of minutes to meander down; it’s lined with major chain stores, empty shop fronts – a sign of the struggling retail sector – and six stores displaying Indigenous artwork in their windows. Artist Sonda Turner Nampijinpa is often seen painting out the front of the second hand bookshop and gallery; fine art from the Utopia region north of Alice Springs lines the shop window a few doors down. The souvenir stores get more bang for their buck in their shopfronts – dot-painted plates and cheap boomerangs are displayed across from kangaroo-testicle bottle openers and crocodile oven mitts.

Unlike other capital cities in Australia, tourists don’t come to Darwin for amusement parks or bustling city streets of shopping and bars. Tourists – domestic and international – come to the Top End to lose themselves in landscapes unlike anything else in the country. Intrinsically linked with those landscapes is 60,000 years of Indigenous stories and cultural knowledge.

All regions of the Northern Territory are known for their unique culture and artistic style, which, to the trained eye, is distinctive to each area. A quarter of Northern Territory’s population is Indigenous; authentic stories, culture and artwork are both visible and accessible. But for travellers or newcomers looking to invest in a piece of Indigenous art, or for a souvenir or gift, there’s a complex and clouded multimillion-dollar industry profiting from fake art, as well as vulnerable Indigenous artists exploited by private dealers signing them to unfair contracts or paying them paltry sums for their work.

In August 2016 the Arts Law Centre of Australia, the Indigenous Art Code, Copyright Agency Ltd and Viscopy launched the Fake Art Harms Culture campaign at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. The campaign estimates about 80 per cent of ‘Aboriginal’ products available in shops nationwide are inauthentic – purporting to be made in Australia by Indigenous artists when they are often mass-produced or made off-shore.

For Darwin-based artist Dale Austin, from the Ngombur clan in South Alligator, it’s a sign of complete disregard for 60,000 years of stories and knowledge and disrespect for artists trying to make a living.

‘It’s a big killer for all the Indigenous people that are making hand crafted, hand painted work with materials from the bush and the stories that go with it,’ he said.

‘When we see cheap items from wherever they’re from, and when we hear people comment “oh, you can go to that shop and get it cheaper,” it shows that people don’t have respect for Indigenous knowledge.

‘All the homelands that are trying to get their own arts centres off the ground and earn money – they’re not trying to make themselves rich, it’s to support their family and community.’

It’s easy to be fooled if you’re trying to do the right thing, too. Many of the cheap souvenirs in shops throughout Darwin proudly say things like ‘authentic Aboriginal art’ or ‘handmade’ and ‘Australia’, often with a picture and a small artist biography.

The claims may be true – a small fee may have been paid to the artist to use their design, and some licensed products are manufactured overseas. But in many cases it’s unlikely they’re getting royalties from each sale; and even more unlikely that the design was painted by an Indigenous Australian, or even in Australia at all.

The Fake Art Harms Culture campaign struck a chord with the nation. In 2017 federal MP Bob Katter introduced a private member’s bill to stop the sale of fake art, and by August the Federal Government had established an inquiry into the increase in inauthentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘style’ products in the market.

‘All the homelands trying to get their own arts centres off the ground – they’re not trying to make themselves rich, it’s to support their family and community.’

But fake art is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Arts Law CEO Robyn Ayres, who says the inquiry has uncovered other exploitative behaviour in the industry.

‘It’s brought quite a lot out of the woodwork,’ she says. ‘For example, someone might sign an agreement to sell their artwork, and what they’ve signed has sold their copyright to the artwork so it can be used by the company without any royalties to be paid.’

Ayres said it’s difficult to legislate or help artists who sign contracts, and currently the Australian Consumer Law is the only real avenue of recourse against dodgy art dealers, or fake souvenirs purporting to be authentic Aboriginal art – and that is aimed more at protecting the art buyer than the art maker.

In March of this year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched federal court action against Birubi Arts, a Queensland-based company that wholesales souvenirs and ‘Aboriginal art’ around the country. The company claims to support and promote ‘ethical dealings with Aboriginal people’.

The ACCC alleged that between July 2014 and November 2017 Birubi sold more than 18,000 items in tourist shops around the country by ‘making false or misleading representations’ that some products were made in Australia or that Aboriginal people had made or hand painted them, when they were made in Indonesia.

Of the six stores selling Indigenous souvenirs in the Smith Street Mall in Darwin, four sold products from Birubi Art, including the Indonesia-made items under investigation.

While the inquiry has been set up to protect the rights of consumers and artists, at the forefront of the current fight is the impact on the living culture.

Some images, motifs and stories are culturally sensitive, and for some it can be upsetting to see them replicated, or attributed to the wrong story, region or tribe. Like climbing Uluru, it’s about acknowledging the damage and hurt caused by disrespecting tradition.

Some images, motifs and stories are culturally sensitive…Like climbing Uluru, it’s about acknowledging the damage and hurt caused by disrespecting tradition.

Artist Les Huddleston, from Ngardi language group in the Roper River region of East Arnhem Land, says Aboriginal people believe the misuse of some images can have consequences for people unwittingly reproducing them.

When I was a tour guide we used to have permission to take people to a burial site at Roper to see all the paintings in there. That’s the only place we don’t let people take photos, but some people still try to…One whitefella made me wild, when I was talking he was taking photos over my shoulder. I said to him, you’re not allowed to do that.

Some of them pictures are of a woman spirit and she’s lethal, she will get you, she’s grotesque and deformed, all out of shape. She’s the one Mimi that will hunt you down.

People don’t realise it’s not right to draw or take photos of those. I wouldn’t draw those or take a photo or nothing. That’s taboo.

Fake Indigenous art on sale in Darwin. Image: Supplied

Just up the road from the Smith Street Mall, Aboriginal Bush Traders operates out of Lyons Cottage. One of the oldest buildings in Darwin, it has withstood both the bombing of the city during World War II and the devastation of Cyclone Tracy.

Gallery Manager Liz Martin has worked with Indigenous artists for many years, including a three years stint at Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya, and has frequently seen the traditional rarrk style cross hatching, unique to Top End tribes, reproduced on cheap trinkets.

‘We’ve all seen it on tea towels and various other bits and pieces that are not licensed through a particular arts centre or not attributed to any artists,’ she says:

It’s utilising a particular graphic style without acknowledging where that style has come from or any particular connection to clan group of region. If you break it right down, it’s a lack of respect for intellectual property. It’s not acknowledging that there’s 60,000 years of stories that have gone into those designs.

I think that’s the part I find the most distressing. I can’t speak for Aboriginal artists, but as someone who works in the industry, I think that’s the most disrespect you can have for a creative person – not acknowledging that it’s a story grounded in something other than the visual. It’s a way to pass down history, to pass down law, and how to collect food and manage people, there are all these other layers to how the knowledge is held in the artwork.

But as the demand for affordable souvenirs grows, as well as an increased interest in Indigenous art across the board, arts centres and artists are responding. In Central Australia, the Warlukurlangu Art Centre has designed a line of authentic licensed product specifically to cater to the low-cost tourist market. Licensing can be sought by manufacturers or initiated by artists or arts centres like Warlukurlangu who wish to have products made overseas. This is done by engaging a copyright agency to ensure the artists and communities receive an economic benefit from the deal.

Similarly, the APY Gallery in Sydney was established by a group of Centralian art centres earlier this year to have more control over the sale and profits of their artwork and to create more opportunities for emerging artists from the region.

Private artists like Austin are also changing their practice to suit the market by making smaller carvings. There is a rise is smaller, more affordable items like earrings and bushfood in shops like Aboriginal Bush Traders, and events like the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.

‘There’s 60,000 years of stories that have gone into those designs…I think that’s the most disrespect you can have for a creative person – not acknowledging that it’s a story grounded in something other than the visual.’

Often tourists want to do the right thing and have good intentions. That’s why even the most blatant fakes often have images and stories attached – to hoodwink them into believing they’re real. But even at the other end of the market, buying from private dealers and private galleries can also contribute to the exploitation of artists who are making authentic artworks.

Some galleries buy direct from artists and add a markup which can vary dramatically. Most galleries, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, take 40 per cent of the retail price, but in some cases, dodgy practitioners will try to screw down the price before throwing a huge mark-up, or prey on vulnerable artists who might need quick money.

The practice is known as carpetbagging. It has become less of an issue since a 2007 Senate inquiry that unearthed horrific treatment of artists, but the practice has by no means been stamped out entirely – many artists say dealers and gallery owners try to talk them down on price despite the high quality of their work.

Larrakia artist Jason Lee has sold his paintings to private collectors, only to later find out they’ve been resold with a huge mark-up.

‘I sell them to people for a couple of hundred, and then hear later that they’ve sold them for a thousand bucks,’ he says. ‘I sold those pieces assuming they’re for (the buyer) and they’ve resold them. It’s really annoying – it doesn’t give you much trust about selling your art.’

Gallery owner and Indigenous Art Code board member Paul Johnstone says the conditions faced by some artists, particularly in remote communities, make them vulnerable to unscrupulous characters who will offer a small amount of cash, a bus ticket, or whatever it is they immediately need, in exchange for an artwork that they can go on to sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

‘There’s plenty of artists still being exploited all the time,’ he says – especially artists for whom English is often their third language.

The thing these people who prey on vulnerable artists know is the artists are still living in a collectivist society, so whatever income they make is dispersed through the family members and poverty is rife through a lot of those community.

There’s still day to day struggles to put food on the table. And these people know these people are hungry and they can pay the artists $20 and the artists will be happy because it means they can go and buy their family some food.

The argument is the artist has agreed and knows how much it’s going to sell for, but quite often the artist has no idea how much it’s going to sell for.

When the artist is being kept in the dark about how much their work is being sold for, and if they’re being systematically being pushed down as far as value goes, or blackmailed – ‘if you don’t give me this painting for this amount then I’m not going to buy any more from you’ – that’s where it’s really disturbing.

Johnstone says more transparency is needed right through the industry to combat not only the inauthentic art, but the dodgy practices of some authentic art dealers.

‘Transparency comes through consumers asking questions, artists being educated in their rights, and making sure there is a transparency in the supply and demand of that item,’ he says.

‘Ask the person they’re buying the work from – how much did that artist get paid? Is the artist being treated fairly? Did the artist paint the entire piece, or only part of that painting? Absolutely (the gallery can lie), but it puts them in a bit of dodgy situation. But we’re not talking about nuts and bolts, we’re talking about people’s lives.’